Monday, January 26, 2015

Good = Good: The Challenges of Programming for Scholastic Orchestra

I have been thinking a great deal lately about repertoire and programming for young orchestra and the challenges this task represents for music directors and all of those who have to decide on the type of repertoire students will endeavor over the period of a concert cycle.  A variety of factors go into this decision and the big one, from my perspective, is making decisions regarding the difficulty of the repertoire.  There are really several sides to the decision.

One school of thought is to program repertoire that is easily within the technical capabilities of the ensemble, with a plan to focus more meaningfully on ensemble-building, musicianship, intonation, and performance practice.  This philosophy also opens the door to more advanced students in the ensemble looking down on the repertoire and students, perhaps, claiming they are "bored" with the repertoire.  That being said, I am always ready to challenge those students with advanced musical ideas and concepts.  

Another would be to program music above the heads of the students from a technical perspective with the thought that the students will be challenged throughout the rehearsal process, and thus, motivated to practice and improve as musicians.  The pitfall here is the rehearsal process can be overwhelmed with the act of "chasing notes."  The conductor may never get to the heart of the music-making process and ensemble building so many of us truly enjoy and value. Another possible by-product is a less than satisfying performance.

Those of us who have lived in the Music Performance Adjudication culture understand over-programming is the kiss of death from a grading standpoint.  We have learned it is always a wise decision to go with repertoire that is a little easier so that the judges will hear rock solid intonation, exceptional technique, and well-shaped phrases.  A "superior" rating on a grade III program is more impressive than an "excellent" rating on a grade IV.  

I have been known to utter the phrase, "Hard isn't necessarily good.  Good is always good." to my students over the years.  I think many students (and teachers) fall into the trap of thinking performing a hard piece of music is a worthy goal.  I would submit that simply performing a piece, if the quality is not there, is not a very lofty goal.  As a conductor, I am much more interested in the musical impact a piece has on the audience.  I am convinced that audiences are rarely impressed with the difficulty of a piece, particularly if it is not performed in a aesthetically satisfying way.

So, at this point in this essay, you are probably thinking, "Well, I know where he sits between programming harder music verses easier music for his ensembles." And, in truth, you would be correct for the most part,  But, in recent days, I have been rethinking the degree to which I hold that belief.  Last summer, I had a wonderful conversation with a colleague who teaches applied violin at a major university.  She expressed some concern that another conductor/colleague had programmed music that was too easy for the ensemble they were conducting and that those students weren't being properly technically challenged for the amount of rehearsal time they were given.  She told me stories of her childhood at summer camps where she played music which was way over her head from a technical perspective and it motivated her to work even harder to learn the notes and rhythms, eventually propelling her to Julliard, and a successful career as a violinist.  I must admit, her stories reminded me of similar experiences I had as a student.  I participated in the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Orchestra beginning at age 15 and I know that many of the pieces I participated in were way above my technical capabilities, especially in the early years.  We certainly grow with these challenges.

I was discussing this idea with one of my Humanities Department colleagues today and she reminded me of the phrase, "No Pain, No Gain."  And, frankly, I agree to with the "no pain, no gain" philosophy to some degree.  Back when I was deeply into power weightlifting in the 1980's, we would often remind each other of this precept.  Not pain as in injury, but pain as in struggle.  We all have to struggle to improve.  We had to feel the bump up from one weight to the next.  After a few days of struggle, that weight would not seem so "painful."  Artists must struggle to ultimately communicate.  Struggle is good.  Struggle is essential.  For, only through struggle do we truly grow.  I can remember struggling with violin repertoire over  the years.  I am sure that I am better for it.

So, how does this fit with the idea of programming repertoire for a scholastic orchestra.  Is the struggle my responsibility as conductor.  Or, can I find and reveal the struggle to my students in repertoire that is more readily within their technical capabilities.  Or perhaps, programming requires a bit of both.  

For many years, I have felt that the bulk of the technical stretching should come in the private lesson studio.  The orchestra, I have felt, is for musical and ensemble stretching.  Those of you that know my conducting and rehearsal style, know that I am passionate about building great ensembles.  Students must learn what to listen for, how to think within an ensemble, how to move in an ensemble, how to lead from any chair, how to communicate with each other, the conductor, and the audience, how to refine intonation, and how to shape phrases.  These are always my priorities in rehearsal.  And, chasing notes, just takes away from my opportunity to share my perspective on these important ideas with  the students.  But now, I am softening on this position.  Sometimes, we just have to provide a technical challenge.  

The key to success, I believe, is to also provide tools for succeeding in this struggle.  We must provide practical solutions to technical problems and proper motivation to spend the time that it takes to overcome these difficulties.  We must have a plan.  We must have a system.  For more on my thoughts on systems, see my post from 1/24/15. I don't believe that it is a good idea to simply throw difficult repertoire at a student and not provide tools for mastery.  That is just a bad idea.  I am reminded of the old commercial that featured a 2 year old child looking at a plate with a whole steamed lobster.  The child simply had a look that said, "What am I supposed to do with this?!"  A technical challenge with under prepared students is like the child with the lobster.  We must provide them with the tools to crack that technical shell.  If we can't provide those tools, we shouldn't put the lobster in front of them.  

So, how do we make solid repertoire decisions that challenge students both technically and musically?  How do we select repertoire that encourages the best practices in ensemble playing and musicianship?  I think the answer lies in variety. Young music students must experience the value of the "perfect" performance. They need to experience the thrill of the "push/pull" that creates tension and release in great ensemble music without the fear of wrong notes and sloppy licks.  They need to experience that perfectly tuned chord; the exhilaration of  steady, accurate tempo with clean, accurate runs.  Similarly, motivated music students must have a sense of what they are striving for.  How will they know the goal if they can't see the horizon.  We can certainly provide both.  But it is a constant struggle and we will never be perfect in the endeavor.  All we can do is continue to evaluate and reevaluate the repertoire we select and be willing to admit when we make a mistake.  After all, from the audience perspective, good is good.  Hard isn't necessarily good.  

I promise, I will keep trying.



  1. I think you make a lot of really excellent points.

    I'm a product of a public school program, where the conductor gave us ONLY standard orchestral repertoire.

    Yes, it was above us.

    We practiced our butts off, though, not just for him, but because even though it was above us, we could tell that it was great music.

    Kids who didn't have private lessons asked the section leaders for help. The orchestra teacher gave free lessons at lunch or before school to anyone who bothered to ask him for help.

    Eventually, the music was no longer above us.

    There are SO many school orchestras who play nothing but dumbed-down arrangements and written-for-scholastic-orchestra pieces by academicians (rather than by great composers). If I had played those instead of the greats, I would never have been inspired to even stay in the music program, let alone practice.

    As it was, I fell in love with classical music BECAUSE of my high school music program. I don't even come from a musical family.

    Read more about our conductor what he did in his obit, here:

    1. Thanks so much for your note and for sharing your teacher's story. He was clearly a special man, musician, and educator. I certainly respect the high standard to which he held himself and students. I really appreciate the feedback. All my best.